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A Conversation with Karl Groom

It was a cold day in January, so I stayed inside and had a very interesting phone conversation with Karl Groom. Karl is well-known as the guitarist for the great Progressive-Metal band Threshold, but he’s also a great producer and an all-around great guy.

Behind the console, he produced Pendragon’s masterpiece The Masquerade Overture and the upcoming album by John Wetton. I haven’t heard that album yet, but rumour has it that it’s Wetton’s best solo album and that it rivals with some of his albums with Asia and King Crimson. I’m sure Karl Groom is at least partly responsible for this.

Guitar Noise: The first time I heard of you was on “The Masquerade Overture,” which I still think is one of the greatest albums ever made.

Karl Groom: It seemed to be a very popular album for some reason. It doubled in sales any other Pendragon album. There must be something on it (laughs).

Nick (Barett of Pendragon) was pretty happy with it. We had a long time to do it. Our albums, you know, lower budget, we spend six months making them. We simply don’t care how long it takes. We just want to make a good album.

Pretty often, the bands that I produce, they have a budget and they have to finish in six to eight weeks. There’s nothing wrong with that, but at the same time it doesn’t give you the satisfaction of getting it just right.

I really enjoyed making that album and in the end; there’s the result.

GN: One of the things that really amazed me with that album is that with the quality of the musicians and with the quality of the material, it would have been very easy to go overboard and put layer upon layer of useless tracks.

KG: I can remember in the mix stage actually taking things out. You’re probably right there (laughs). It’s usually keyboards. With Progressive music you tend to build songs by sequencing keyboards and rehash them together. It makes it a lot easier to listen back and know what you’re doing. As a result, when you’re putting those together, you tend to put more keyboards than it needs because there’s no guitars there or vocals there to fill the space.

Too often in Progressive music you get layer upon layer of pads and no room left over for anything else. Keyboards are a very important part of that music, but too much of them and it just becomes one great big pad. I made the mistake myself! (laughs)

GN: Live and learn!

KG: Yeah! Well you have to make a few albums before you start making a good one.

GN: That’s a great comment. It’s a fact, but I think too many people don’t realize this.

KG: It’s quite easy to study the technical aspects and figure out what you’re doing. But it’s not just a technical thing, it’s really a judgement thing. I’ll take an album and before I put it on CD I’ll take a week off and see what I can do to change it. Out of the studio environment, it becomes much more obvious what mistakes you’ve made, what things need to be changed. When you sit there for hour after hour of mixing, after a while it just becomes a wall of noise. If you take it away and put it in a cheap system in the car or at home you often find out immediately which things stand out and make a judgement then.

GN: How does producing your own album compare to producing somebody else’s?

KG: I think it’s a lot harder when it’s your own baby; you work too hard at it. And the best production ideas come from other people’s music, rather irritatingly! (laughs) It’s the reason why in Threshold, Richard works with me as well. I’ll maybe take some time off while he’s doing some vocals and keyboards and we can make better judgements that way. When you’re working on someone else’s music, you can sit back and make a good call while when you’re recording yourself and listening to yourself, you can’t make the best call.

It’s all a case of experience. Every time you do an album, you think “Well, I could of done this or that better.” You always get new ideas for how you can improve the next album.

GN: The Threshold albums I’ve found have been evolving from one to the next.

KG: I think the writing’s been improving. And the equipment for recording’s been getting better as technology goes forward. And I think since we’ve had Mac in the band, we’ve found a sound which is our own. The last three albums stand out for me as being more complete. We’ve weeded out the songs that didn’t work on albums and gone forward and hope we haven’t wasted a slot for a good song on an album.

Before, we couldn’t always agree with each other and would sometimes include a song just to keep someone happy. Now we got a very focused idea on what we want to do and the album has to hold together as a whole, a collection of songs.

And we structure it so that the dynamics of the album follow from the beginning to the end and we don’t think about it as: “Here’s a song and it’s just one of the songs on the album.” We think about the album and how it goes from beginning to end.

GN: I have to admit that at first, when I received Hypothetical, I didn’t give it a fair listen, thinking it was just a heavy metal album. The review copy I received had no credits on it, so I didn’t know who was in the band. My review of it was, thinking back, unfair as I didn’t listen to it enough. But since Psychedelicatessen and Critical Mass (note: this is the latest release from the band), I’ve taken it back out and I’ve been playing it almost daily. It’s almost as good as “Critical Mass”. It has a lot of great material, in particular “Narcissus”.

KG: Long song! (laughs) A lot of work in the arrangement process.

One of the problems in this area is that there may not be a media. Because the songs are complex and it takes a few listens to get into it and that may be why it’s not so mainstream and people can’t immediately latch onto an album.

From my point of view that’s an advantage. I usually find that the album’s that take me a little while to get into are the ones that will last me for years. Whereas music for the media comes and goes. You find that after a few months you put it away and never listen to it again.

Like you said, too many metal bands lack melody. Once you’ve heard the production, you’ve heard two songs and you put it away. You never get past the first couple of songs.

GN: That was the case with bands like Iron Maiden; seemed you were always listening to the same song. It gets pointless.

KG: Yeah and it’s one of the reasons I got into music like Genesis when I was really into metal. Because the melodies kind of weave in and out and the arrangements are complex and there’s obviously a lot of thought that goes into the music. That’s what we decided when we started the band; we liked these two different styles and we were going to blend them.

There wasn’t any thing called Progressive-Metal when we started and we didn’t think we would get signed. We didn’t think anyone would be interested in it. So when GEP signed us at the time, we were flabbergasted! (laughs) It wasn’t something we planned on doing. Then, all of a sudden, this whole thing came forward. Queensryche became more popular and Dream Theatre became public and they had to find some kind of phrase to name the media. But Threshold were the first to do this kind of music. Before Dream Theatre and all the others.

GN: I don’t like the term Progressive-Metal myself.

KG: No, but they have to have some kind of sign to hang over it when handling the reviews. I also think, like you say, that Progressive-Metal doesn’t necessarily indicate what the band’s about.

GN: Yeah. You get a band like Pain of Salvation who are classified into the same category as you guys and there music sounds nothing like yours. (Note: this is not intended as a sour note toward Pain of Salvation who are a great band in their own rights.)

KG: Especially their first album… It’s kind of half-Funk, half-Metal. We’ve done quite a lot of stuff with them. We were in America with them last year. We did a whole European tour with them three years ago also. Friendly guys. Very nice guys, like to have a good time.

GN: Any plans to tour North America?

KG: We were in South America last year and that went really well. We plan on going back there. We were in North America last year and we thought we didn’t have any sort of real fans in America, but there were 1,500 people there and we were absolutely amazed!

You never really know what to expect and we thought… (laughs) this could go over really badly, but it went over fantastic. I think the guys at InsideOut America are trying to organize something.

GN: One question I’ve always wanted to ask a British Progressive musician. Historically, there has never been a famous British composer. There were good composers like Walton, but no famous ones. As Progressive Rock has its roots in Classical music, how is it it’s the British who keep coming up with this incredible music?

KG: I think of Progressive music as a way to freely compose, so I guess it is linked, but I never really came from that background. I learned to play the piano really early then stopped playing. I wasn’t really interested. Then just started listening to Rock music.

I just see the Progressive thing as a real freedom to express yourself because there’s no limitations on the arrangements. The length of the song can be two minutes or it can be twenty minutes; you can just go wherever you want without the confines of strict arrangement lines. It’s something that really appeals to me.

But I still wanted the kick of metal, something to give it some real aggression when you need it.

GN: As a guitarist, your gear is rather basic?

KG: I’ve got a lot of gear in the studio, but it just tends to get in the way. I find that when people buy new gear they tend to program it or adjust it to make it sound like their old gear. So I figure I just bust a valve now and again… (laughs)

A lot of it’s in your head and I just keep trying to come up with new ideas in terms of playing. Once you’ve got the tone that you’re looking for I don’t think it’s logical to start changing it.

I’m really interested in the playing and coming up with new ideas. And I’m not a great one for practicing. I find when I sit down to practice, like before a tour, I end up writing more songs instead… (laughs) I get really bored with that sort of thing…

GN: Upcoming for Threshold is the new acoustic album?

KG: Yeah. We finished all the recording, I’m getting down to the mixing now. It’s basically a fan club album. It’s something we wanted to do and the label lets us do things like that every now and again. We can’t do it opposite a studio album, but we can do things like the odd live album and now this acoustic sessions thing.

It’s something we wanted to do because the singer we have now wasn’t on the first three albums. So half the songs are from the first three albums and we reworked them. It’s when I saw Bryan Adams doing an acoustic performance on MTV I thought why should acoustic be just acoustic guitars? Why can’t you have acoustic drums and acoustic bass?

We always fancied having a go at something like that because you can do it with different arrangements. And the acoustic sound is fresh and it gives it a different dimension.

It something we wanted to do. Obviously it won’t sell like the studio albums but we had a chance to put it across so now we’re there.

GN: You never know, it could become huge.

KG: (laughs) We’re not allowed to distribute it. We can only sell it from the website according to the terms of the contract. It’s a fan club album really.

Note: Stay tuned to Guitar Noise as we’ll let you know when it becomes available and we will have a review of it. You can also check Threshold’s website for more information.

Karl Groom’s gear

’80’s Sharpell Guitar, Marshall Amp with Quattro-verb, Marshall 4 x 12 cabinet